As the U.S. military considers the propriety of naming bases after guys who fought for the other side and the House speaker orders the removal of some of her predecessors’ portraits on similar grounds, Washington state has some reckonings of its own to deal with.
The Tacoma News Tribune last week raised questions about the namesake of its home county, Franklin Pierce, the 14th president.
Naming a county after a president or other prominent figure was a pretty common occurrence in the 1800s when Washington and other states were splitting up land for ease of government. After all, the new counties needed to be called something to differentiate them from their neighbors, and Washington’s founders seemed to have two choices – political figures whose good graces might be useful in procuring statehood or difficult to pronounce and spell Native American names that would instantly reveal if someone “ain’t from around here.”
Spokane obviously opted for the latter.
Although he did not put on gray and march under the Stars and Bars, Pierce, as the newspaper points out, was pretty instrumental in maintaining slavery in the nation while he was president. He was also a vocal critic of President Lincoln during the Civil War and good buds with Jefferson Davis.
Pierce isn’t the only county namesake with a troubling history where slavery is concerned, a quick check of history shows.
Most American history books at least mention that Thomas Jefferson, for all his brilliance and political acumen, was a slaveholder and – depending on the age group of the class – that he may have fathered children with at least one of his slaves. He’s got a county named after him on the Olympic Peninsula.
William Clark, namesake for the southwest county that includes Vancouver, was a slaveholder who brought his slave York with him as he, Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. York has the distinction of being the first Black American in the Northwest; it didn’t earn him his freedom when they got back home.
Lewis’ family apparently owned slaves, but he didn’t bring any with him on the trip.
Stephen A. Douglas, namesake of a Central Washington county, was not a slave owner, as he lived in a free state. But he was a proponent of allowing states to choose whether they would allow slavery when they entered the union. One could make a good political argument for that at the time, but not so much now.
Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri senator and namesake of another Central Washington county, owned slaves early in his life but came to oppose it later, so much so that it eventually cost him his seat. He was a big proponent of expanding the United States westward, which was good for Americans of European descent, not so much for its Native population.
Grant, Lincoln, Adams and Franklin are pretty safe namesakes, even by 2020 standards. It’s an open question whether those standards would have allowed the state’s founders to name it after the first president.
Changing a county’s name would be more difficult than moving some portraits or relocating some statues, and probably more than renaming military bases because of all the signage, stationery and maps.
But if Pierce County decides to take the News Tribune’s editorial to heart, there is another option if they don’t mind taking a page from their neighbor to the north. King County was originally named for William Rufus King, who was Pierce’s vice president. He was also a slave owner and a prominent defender of it while in Congress.
In 1986, King County residents decided they wanted a change, so they renamed the county for Martin Luther King, Jr., which allowed them to remove the ignominy without changing all the signs. (It’s possible W.R. King could have found proponents to remain the namesake under 2020 sensibilities as the first gay lover of a president, but that’s a different debate.)
Pierce could opt for a similar strategy by choosing as its new namesake Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the wise-cracking, establishment ignoring doctor in “M-A-S-H.” Then they’d just have to choose whether to invite Donald Sutherland or Alan Alda to the renaming ceremony.
In honor of this week’s (somewhat) historical theme we offer Gov. Jay Inslee’s opening to Wednesday’s press conference:
“You may fire when ready, Gridley,” which may have puzzled some viewers tuning in on TVW.
He was quoting, pretty closely, Commodore George Dewey’s instructions to Capt. Charles Gridley, the commander of his flagship, at the start of the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, which led to the destruction of the Spanish fleet.
Bit of state trivia: that ship was the U.S.S. Olympia.